A Text Written in Lava

Image: Sign in Lava Tree State Monument, Pahoa, HI: “STAY ON TRAIL. DANGEROUS EARTH CRACKS IN PARK AREA” (Photo: Ruth Adar)

Today I visited a most remarkable place: Lava Tree State Monument near Pahoa, on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

It is a place of profound beauty, and after watching videos of the eruption this summer that nearly obliterated this park, I also see it as a place of terror. The “Lava Trees” are actually molds of O’hi’a Lihua trees (Metrosideros polymorpha) formed during a 1790 eruption of Kilauea volcano. The lava flowed across the ground, burning everything in its path, coating the trunks of the trees, after which the trees burned away within their lava jackets. What is left is an eerie column of cooled lava, which looks as much like a person than a tree.

This is a photo of Linda standing next to one of the larger lava trees. As you can see, lichens, mosses and plants have taken root in the crevices of the “tree.”

Notice the asphalt path that runs through the park. It was a rare treat to visit a place for which I had truly equal access. As the sign in the photo at the top says, everyone has to stay on the path.

Volcanos always bring to mind the processes of creation and destruction, for the two happen simultaneously in an eruption. Nothing I know of, short of the ocean, can withstand a lava flow. It burns and destroys everything in its path. And yet it carries the seeds of creation: new land, hard and craggy at first, but the raw material for a lush landscape when the conditions come together. A bird drops an o’hi’a seed; the plant has the gift of breaking down lava into its elements, to slowly form soil. Other plants take advantage, and other birds drop other seeds. A forest grows, another eruption takes place, melting the old lava, burning the new growth, and the process begins again.

The opening of the book of Genesis is usually translated something like, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” In fact, the Hebrew conveys a sense of ongoing creation, something more like, “In the beginning God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

“Is creating” – that is what I saw in Hawai’i this week. Only a short distance away, a lava flow destroyed over 700 homes this past summer. Priceless wildlife habitat was destroyed, along with many rare creatures, like the green sea turtles which essentially boiled to death in the Kipoho tide pools as the lava swamped the pools. About 35.5 square kilometers of the big island were covered with lava, including about 3.5 square kilometers of new real estate added to the island. There were awful losses buried under a new beginning. “God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

Kilauea is not finished, although she may be quiet for a while. If geological history is an indicator, it has all happened many times before and will happen many times again. There may be, as Kohelet said, “Nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) but the process of creation is one new beginning after another.

A tiny pink orchid blooms amidst the f ens of Lava Tree State Monument.
The photo is roughly full-size.
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Shabbat Shalom! – Bereshit

Image: The first chapter of Genesis inscribed on an egg. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Sputnikcccp on April 22, 2003. Via wikimedia, some rights reserved.

We’re back at the beginning again, reading, “In the Beginning…” We begin the Torah with two creation stories that have many contradictions, and this week’s Torah portion has both of them. Which one is true? we might be tempted to ask, if we are accustomed to think that there is one correct answer to every question.

So perhaps the first lesson in this scroll is that a good question may have more than one correct answer. Any good mathematician will tell you that there are many problems with more than one right answer.

So it is with Jewish questions.

One may ask, why did we wave the lulav during Sukkot?

An anthropologist might answer, “Because the practice began as an ancient fertility rite, and it is intended to bring on the rain and renew the fertility of the earth.”

A student of the Bible might say, “Because we are commanded to wave it in Levitcus 23:40.”

A kabbalist might reply, “Because when we wave the lulav, we bring together the seven emanations of the Holy and unite them next to our heart.”

A different teacher might say, “Because the four species represent the four kinds of people in the world.”

And yet another Jew might say, “Because it is what my teacher of Torah taught me to do.”

… and they are all quite correct.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Bereshit. Shabbat shalom!

Two Tales of Creation

This week we begin reading the Torah again from the beginning, starting with the two famous creation stories in Genesis 1 – 3. We call this first Torah portion in the Bible after its first word: Bereshit. (It’s pronounced buh-ray-SHEET.)

That’s right, two stories. They aren’t long. For this exercise, go read them both. One begins at Genesis 1:1, and the other starts at Genesis 2:4. Take notes as you read, just a quick list of what happens in each. Then compare the two lists for the two stories.

See anything interesting? These are two different stories! They contradict each other in many ways. We are often conditioned by Sunday school classes to “blend” the two stories to avoid seeing the differences, but I encourage you to look for those differences.

Now ask yourself: why are there two stories that contradict each other? (Please, I would love to hear your answers in the comments!)

OK, now I am going to be a pushy teacher and instead of leaving you with your own delightful thoughts about that question, I’m going to offer you an idea of my own about it. If you’d rather not, by all means, just stop reading at the little line below.

—–

My theory: those two conflicting stories are there as a clue that we were never intended to read these stories as history. They aren’t “what really happened” – they can’t be, they contradict.

What they are is a collection of  basic ideas about the world, a Jewish worldview:

  • The world is not chaos, there is an underlying Unity of some kind.
  • Human beings are constructed to live in relationship with one other.
  • Human beings  do not “own” creation.
  • Life is not easy.
  • … and many more.

I imagine you can distill other ideas from these stories, ideas about the world and our place in it. I hope you’ll share those ideas in the comments.

Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.